Visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of those bucket list things that I’ve wanted to do from the moment I saw my first photo of it. Like most places that I’ve dreamt about visiting for any length of time, the reality was different than I imagined.
It was even better!!
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Seriously, this place blew me away. It’s a real life fantasy land featuring 16 aqua blue lakes that tumble one into the other through a series of beautiful waterfalls. I lost count of how many waterfalls I saw in just a couple of hours on my first day. The second day I saw even more!
Despite my appreciation for this magical place, my visit wasn’t without its challenges. Hopefully I will save you a little trouble by explaining how you can make the best use of your time based on my experiences there. Whether you’re simply taking it all in or trying to get the best photos possible, here is your guide to visiting and photographing Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Tips for visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park
Take a detour
First, do yourself a favor and stop at Rastoke for a quick detour on the way to or from the lakes. If you’re heading down from Zagreb to Plitvice, you’ll be passing right through the little town. It’s a convenient stop for lunch and quick sightseeing, if not an overnight stay. There are old mills dating back to the 17th century (you’ll have to pay), but there are also several waterfalls to see for free. If you haven’t yet been to Plitvice Lakes, it will be the perfect place to take a break from driving and get you pumped up for visiting the park!
Plitvice Lakes National Park is currently a Unesco World Heritage site. If conservation efforts continue, it will be for a long time, but we need to do our part when visiting. Don’t litter, don’t go off the trail or boardwalk, and don’t swim. Yes, the water looks inviting and you see people swimming there in photos, but it is 100% not allowed. Don’t be that guy! The only creatures that should be swimming in the crystal clear water are fish and ducks.
Please try not to support the hotels, cafes, and shops inside the park unless you’re desperate. This will only lead to more development within the park and over-visitation, which is already pushing the limits according to the park’s Unesco World Heritage status in 2016. Besides, when one is forced to eat the food, one might find it to be mediocre.
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Two days vs. one day
There are two entrances to the park. Entrance 2 takes you to the upper lakes and Entrance 1 takes you to the lower lakes. You can choose to visit the park for one day and see just one set of lakes, but in my opinion that would just be silly!
A less silly option would be to spend one day seeing both sets of lakes. It can all be done in 6+ hours, but considering my obsession with this place it may be no surprise that I recommend two days. Spreading out your visit over two days is a great way to take your time and thoroughly explore the lakes and the surrounding forest if you choose to. Personally I could have spent an entire week there… who am I kidding, I could live there!
Whether you choose to spend one day or two+, I highly recommend an overnight at Falling Lakes Hostel. Even if you’re not a hostel/dorm sort of traveler, they have lovely private rooms for you. They have a great atmosphere, friendly staff, and the place is impeccable! I went back just to stay there on my return trip north. Tell them Tracie sent you if you end up staying! :)
Avoid the crowds
I was at Plitvice Lakes in the fall and the crowds were tolerable (except that one never ending stream of people when I was trying to take a photo on the path). Tour groups are the biggest culprit when it comes to crowds here, or anywhere for that matter. I only saw a handful of big groups come through, but I would have seen more if I hadn’t been moving around so much myself. I have heard that summer crowds are worse, so time your visit accordingly if crowds are not your thing.
Speaking of timing, arrive right when the park opens. You may be the only one there for a little while, which is a very peaceful way to spend a morning. <3
Take photos of the maps
There is a small map on your entrance ticket, but please don’t rely on that alone. You will see many different maps of the park posted. Probably displayed where you’re staying, at the entrances, and at the tram and boat stops. I suggest taking a photo of every single one since they vary in the amount of information that they provide.
Some of them have suggested routes (called programs) depending on how much time you have. I chose to ignore those because I had a photo agenda, but you might be able to make better use of them. Each route is labeled with a letter.
If you plan to see all of the lakes in one day, I would suggest going from the top down. This might save you some rushing uphill later in the day when you’re trying to finish up your visit by a certain time. Take the tram all the way to the uppermost lake and start your walk down and around the upper lakes from there, then continue to the upper end of the lower lakes.
Don’t trust the signs completely
As much as I adore Plitvice Lakes National Park, I feel that the signage could be improved. It seems as if they have the right intention, to make things easier, but they ended up oversimplifying to the point of complicating things. Too many different map signs, no “you are here” points on those maps, and very little explanation of things. At least the signs showed some words in English in addition to Croatian.
I figured out that “St” on the map meant there was a tram stop (Station?) and “P” meant that there was a boat stop. I feel that it would have made more sense to simply label them as “tram stop” and “boat stop”, but that was not the case. At least the signs that were posted frequently alongside the trails were labeled with a little picture of trams and boats. The addition of extra letters confused me even more because in the beginning I didn’t know that there were suggested routes designated by letters. Again, I think “route H” or “program H” could save people the trouble of guessing what “H” refers to.
As frequent as they are, these signs are not as helpful as they could be even when you know what all the letters stand for. They point towards the next boat or tram stop, but they don’t necessarily say how far away those are. There was also no signage that I saw (even on my little ticket) mentioning the times of the last departing boats and trams. For someone who decided to push her luck one day, this knowledge would have been helpful…
Don’t leave too late
On that note, don’t make the many mistakes I made on my first day. I was so anxious to see the park that I opted to use up one of my two days as soon as I arrived in the area. This only left me a couple of hours that day, which for me was not nearly enough. I also heard that it was supposed to rain the next day, so I wanted to make the most of my bad timing.
So I arrived around 4pm and rushed through the upper lakes. Well, I admit that the only rushing (uphill!) I did was towards the end when I realized how close I was cutting my return to the entrance which was supposed to close at 6pm. At a certain point I made the bad decision to head towards the mysterious tram that I kept seeing signs for, even though I had no idea how far it was. You see, I knew about how far back the boat was because I had arrived on it. But, like I said, I was pushing my luck trying to see as much as I could. I was being greedy!
I knew that the last boat left at 6pm, and I made the mistake of assuming that the last tram also left at 6pm. It didn’t. I arrived at the tram stop at 5:45pm, 15 minutes after the last one left and too late to get back to the boat in time. In my panic at that moment I began recounting all the survival skills that I had learned from Bear Grylls over the years, wondering if I could make it through the night. When I calmed down I realized that even though I arrived on a boat, I could just follow the tram road back to the entrance. Duh!
Treat a visit to Plitvice Lakes as you would a long hike. Plan to be out for most of the day and bring what you might need. If it rains, you don’t want to have to go all the way back to your hotel to get an umbrella or rain jacket. Fortunately, I was well prepared for the hours upon hours of rain that I experienced on my second day. Bring lots of water, snacks, and sunscreen (when the sun is actually out). There is food available at the entrances and various transportation stops, but be prepared to eat mostly gross sandwiches and burgers if you must eat there.
Make sure you have a charged cell phone with an active SIM card! In Zagreb I had gotten a new SIM card, but something was wrong with it. I didn’t realize that until I was desperate to avoid that overnight in the woods. Even though I made it back okay, a working phone would have allowed me to follow a digital map or make an emergency call had I needed to.
Tips for photographing Plitvice Lakes National Park
Careful with that tripod
If you want those beautifully blurred cascades of water, then you’ll definitely need to bring a tripod. You only need an exposure of a couple of seconds, if that. Just be forewarned that many of the waterfalls will require you to set up your tripod on a boardwalk and you’ll need to share that narrow space with people passing through. Please be courteous and pull up your tripod to let them pass.
If not for your manners, do it for your photos! People walking anywhere in the vicinity can vibrate the boardwalk, so you’ll want to be aware of those tiny vibrations that could ruin your photos.
Filters are fun!
You might want your entire arsenal of filters for a visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park. I was lucky in some ways because the darker, overcast sky made it easier to shoot longer exposures for those silky waterfalls. I had no need for my neutral density filters because the scenes were never very bright.
Occasionally I did need a graduated neutral density filter when the contrast between the foreground and sky was too extreme. A graduated neutral density filter darkens part of the image only, allowing you to evenly expose the entire image.
I timed my visit well for the height of the colors of autumn, but I was not so lucky with the rain. Despite constantly trying to keep my camera (and lens!) dry, one benefit of the rain was the wet foliage. A polarizing filter was all I needed to tone down the shiny highlights on leaves and bring out the color already made richer from the rain. The result was naturally saturated colors all day long, with no sun creating harsh shadows and highlights.
Shooting in the rain
I certainly hope a little old thing like water pouring from the sky wouldn’t stop you from exploring and photographing such a gorgeous place as Plitvice Lakes National Park. You can still shoot in the rain, but you might need a few pointers if you’re not used to it.
Lens hoods do not only block rays of light, they can also shelter your lens from rain drops. If your hood doesn’t extend out very far, it may not do much to protect your lens, so some other covering may be necessary (if I traveled with an umbrella, this would have been ideal). No matter how big your lens hood is, it’s best to check your lens for drops of water after each shot.
If your lens is dry, be sure to cover it with a lens cap right away. If it’s wet, carefully wipe off the drops until completely dry and then cover with a lens cap. You may need several lens wiping cloths because eventually they will be too soaked to do you any good. There are some that are more absorbent than others, so be sure to ask before buying.
Even though I was prepared for the rain, I was out in it for so long that I still got soaked through. Me and everything with me. It would have helped to have a cover for my backpack (which I simply could not find before I left) and an extra towel or something to cover and wipe down exposed equipment. I made do for a while with a soft scarf, covering my camera as I carried it on my tripod from place to place and using it to pat dry my camera when it was getting too wet. When I was done for the day, I dried everything off the best that I could and then let it all air dry out in the open in my room, including my bag and my tripod. Closing up expensive equipment in a moist environment is no good!
Contrary to my last statement, if it’s pretty cold out and you’re moving your equipment into a warm place, DO close it up. Ideally this won’t be in a wet bag, but that may be a better temporary solution than fogging up your camera with the sudden temperature change. If this happens it could trap moisture in your camera that will damage it. Place your camera in a cold (hopefully dry) bag before bringing it into the warmth of a room and bring it out again when everything has a chance to gradually warm up a bit.
For most landscapes I shoot with a high number aperture (like f16 or f18). This is to ensure that the entire scene is sharp. In many cases this means that I will be shooting in manual mode. Meaning that I have full control of everything like shutter speed and ISO which will result in a perfectly exposed image. In other modes like aperture priority or shutter priority, the camera makes its best guess but it may be confused by extreme darks that are next to extreme brights.
Shooting in manual not only guarantees that you’ll get the exposure that you’re going for, but it helps you to slow down and think carefully about what you’re doing. It’s good to practice this with landscapes when you’re learning photography.
Normally when I need a tripod to shoot something, it’s usually too dark for the camera to auto focus so I have no choice but to set the lens to manual focus. By the way, Live View is a great tool for checking focus on your camera’s LCD screen!
However, when I’m shooting waterfalls I’m using a tripod, but it’s also light enough for the camera to auto focus. In this case I decide what to do based on the situation. If the scene is far away without much depth, I am probably safe autofocusing. If there is depth to the scene with a close foreground, I can either selectively auto focus (by directing my focus point where I want it) or manually focus on the foreground (which is hopefully around 1/3 of the way into the scene) if I want everything in focus like in the next photo. If I don’t want the foreground in focus, I’ll focus on the background, such as in the second photo below. I find manually focusing to be my safest bet because leaves and foliage can be tricky to focus on. Foreground leaves can blend in with background leaves, confusing the camera’s auto focus sensor even if I’ve pointed it where to focus.
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I suggest only using manual focus when you have a tripod so that you can digitally zoom in on the scene to make sure that the focus is where you want it. Much harder to do when you’re holding the camera and trying to manually focus at the same time!
Hopefully this post will help you when visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park, whether you’ll be taking photos or not. If you want a more in depth guide to photography, you might want to check out my non-technical photography tips series:
Introduction Post – 13 Non-technical Photography Tips for any Camera
Part 2 – Point and Shoot Cameras
Part 3 – Intro to DSLR Cameras
Part 5 – Desktop and Mobile Editing
Want to know more about Croatia in the low tourist season?
Check out this post at World Travel Connector about
visiting Croatia in the winter.
*As always, all opinions and photos are my own and based on my experiences. I was not financially compensated for this post.
Chi - Your photos are very beautiful and your writing is helpful. I will keep this post in my pocket until I drop by this place. Keep up with the good work!
traciehowe - Hey! Thanks, Chi. I appreciate that. I hope it helps you if you visit!
neha - Such a beautiful waterfall and lake. No wonder you wanted to visit here since you saw it’s picture. Now, I am in the same boat :)
traciehowe - Thanks, Neha! And there are several lakes! It’s more spectacular than you can imagine. I hope you can go some day. :)
The Travel Ninjas - Plitvice Lakes are breathtaking. Beautiful photos and great photography tips. We have to see Plitivce for ourselves now. Thanks for the great info.
traciehowe - Thank you! I hope you do make it there. It’s a must see!
Mar Pages - Although those lakes are calling for me to jump in, I am totally for the no swimming policy. It’s much better to maintain the ecosystem there so that we can enjoy it for as long as possible. Your photos are amazing by the way!
traciehowe - I totally agree, Mar! Although the lakes were NOT calling me when I was there because it was pretty cold at the time. ;)
Anna - I visited Croatia last summer but didn’t get to see this beautiful national park. Now I realise what I missed out on, so Croatia is going back to my list! Stunning pictures, and I’m glad to hear the rain didn’t damage your camera.
traciehowe - Oh no! I’m sorry to hear that, Anna! I certainly hope you get back and can visit Plitvice Lakes!
Ami - Your pictures of the waterfalls are just amazing. The whole park in general looks lovely. Just curious though – being a UNESCO site, wont there be issues for any more shops to anyway set up here? I mean what is there cannot be changed but nothing new can be added right?
traciehowe - Hi Ami, I think there is a limit to what can be built as a UNESCO site, but my understanding is that a place can lose it’s UNESCO status IF it develops beyond what is permitted. So I imagine Plitvice Lakes will either try to keep its status or try to make more money with additional development. I am no expert, but that is why I left a link with more info. I hope that helps! Thanks for your comment!
Roger Wellington (www.wetnoseescapades.com) - Wow, you did a phenomenal job capturing the beauty of this place via photography. This place looks so amazing! I would love to visit one day.
traciehowe - Thank you, Roger! It was a bit challenging with all the rain, but I enjoyed every moment anyway! I hope you get to go one day!
Sandy N Vyjay - Wow! The place look so fascinating. Breathtaking pictures and scenic beauty. The place looks like heaven. Plitvice national park is definitely now in my bucket list.
traciehowe - Thanks, Sandy! Yes, this is definitely one for the bucket list. No doubt about it!
Abigail - Plitvice National Park is one of the prettiest parks in the world. I’ve always seen it with snow and this is the first time that I’ve seen it without snow. It is as equally breathtaking and magical!
traciehowe - Abigail, I would love to see it in the snow! I was thinking that I was pretty lucky to see it with the fall colors, but I envy you seeing it in winter!
Harsh Gupta - This lake looks mystical. I am in love with all the pictures and it must have been so good exploring this place. You have captured it so beautifully.
traciehowe - Thank you, Harsh! It’s a mystical place to be sure!
Pitinan - You’re such a photographer. I love your photos, amazing.
traciehowe - Thank you so much, Pitinan! That’s very sweet! :)
William McIntosh - Thank you so much for this article! I will be visiting this October and this is exactly the type of info I was looking for. Loved the photos! Cheers!
traciehowe - That’s great! I’m glad I could help! You’re going to LOVE it!! :D
Alpha Whiskey Photography - Hi there. nice pics. We’ll be shooting there this coming fall and appreciate all your tips.
We’ll be driving in from Zagreb and hope to see Rastoke along the way.
What times of day did it start getting busy? And was it prohibitively so?
Did you have to book accommodation (hostel/B+B) in advance or were you able to find it when you got there?
traciehowe - Thank you! Fall is such an awesome time to go to Plitvice Lakes!! I hope you get nice weather. I recommend carving out a few days to visit there just in case.
The park starting getting busy about 30 minutes after opening. I will say that this is only when I happened to notice it getting busy from where I was in the park, so it could have been different elsewhere. The only time crowds were really an issue was when busloads of people were coming through in big groups. There was only one time that it seemed like a never-ending wave of groups was keeping me from shooting a walkway. However, any number of people walking by would shake the walkways, just FYI if you’ll be using a tripod. I also noticed that later in the day, around closing time, there were fewer large groups. I think they try to keep each of the groups moving and out of the park well before closing, so they’re never around for too long. I’m sure this could all vary depending on the day though.
As for the hostel I stayed, I can’t recommend it enough! Falling Lakes Hostel is one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at and they have private rooms, which is nice. I did actually book in advance, just for peace of mind. It was never too busy, but I think that also depends on the day and what types of rooms they have available. If you decide to go with them, I hope that you’ll book through my AGODA link in the post (right before the common room photo), which helps support the site!
I hope that helps! Please let me know if you have more questions!
Alpha Whiskey - Thank you so much Tracie! I really appreciate the detailed answer That’s super helpful! :)
I’ll probably book in advance then and probably through your link :)
traciehowe - Of course, Alpha Whiskey! I appreciate it in advance if you go through my link! When exactly will you be there anyway? I’d be curious to see your photos if it’s a slightly different time of year.
Alpha Whiskey - Probably towards the end of October! Many thanks again! :)
traciehowe - Oh, great! That’s when I was there! All the best!
Alpha Whiskey - Many thanks for all your help! We visited and had a great time. You can see my pics from the Lakes here:
traciehowe - Fantastic! So glad you got to go and had a good visit. I hope my tips helped! Thanks for checking in!
Anthony Tong - Hi, very beautiful photos and thanks for the tips.
We are going there this September, wonder what sort of lens did you used in your photos.
traciehowe - Hi Anthony, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you asked about what lenses I used here, because I just revisited my photos from the park and realized how many I have not even shared yet! Anyway, I looked at the metadata for most of those and saw that the majority were taken with my 17-40mm (I have a full frame camera), but I did take some with my 70-200mm. I think I had one more lens on me for that trip, but these two were sufficient. I hope you have a great time and get some nice shots!
Sri - Hi Tracie – Great article and beautiful pictures. I am visiting the park next week en route to Split – Dubrovnik. Unfortunately, I only have couple of hours before I hit the road again. I love long exposure shots, and that what my plan is to capture the falls. If possible for you, can you suggest the best location where I should go without wasting time figuring out the routes/locations etc. I know it would be hard as you loved the entire park.
traciehowe - Hi Sri, thanks for your comment! I don’t remember any of the specific routes (they’re called programs there), but if you pick one entrance and don’t take a boat or tram, then you’ll be free to wander at your own pace. If I recall, Entrance 2 (Upper Lakes) makes it pretty easy to get quick access to the park from the parking lot without taking any other transportation. As you enter the gates, I think it will be pretty obvious where you can go to see the falls in that first photo of my post. Or, you can just ask where to go at the gate. Once you’re down there you can wander around a little bit or head back up for a different perspective. I suggest studying the program maps at the entrance that you choose and picking one that works for your schedule. They will say how many hours it takes to do each one, but keep in mind that you might be fighting crowds depending on what time you go, so it will likely take longer for photos. And tripods are going to be challenging in certain areas because of the shaky walkways and people squeezing by. I think I said all of that in the post, but just making sure you know what to expect! ;) Best of luck! You’ll love it and want to stay longer!!!
Mark - Do you ever take a photo of a waterfall that isn’t “smeared”? Personally, I like to see photos of waterfalls as they actually look to the human eye. Don’t get me wrong, your photos are beautiful, great color & depth, but it would wonderful to see “gurgling” water to get a better feel for what it actually looks like.
traciehowe - Hi Mark, sorry for my delay in responding! Yes, I have taken waterfall photos like that, without the “smeared” look. It’s just a matter of preference for me that I like the long-exposures. It feels more ethereal or something. That effect is what got me serious about photography and I still love it to this day! I will on occasion take a waterfall photo with a faster shutter speed though. It all comes down to what look I’m going for with a specific subject… or if I don’t happen to have a tripod with me. ;)